Updated: Sep 10, 2021
In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a groundbreaking special report on the impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels. The report concluded an extreme likelihood that human actions have changed the global climate system. Without mitigation, we will see significant sea level rise, widespread habitat damage and species loss, and severe heat waves, cold snaps, and storms in the coming years. The report was a wakeup call for much of the global community, giving us a short, 12 year timeline to act if we want to keep below the Paris climate agreement’s 1.5 degree target.
Now, with under a decade left in that 12 year window, the IPCC has released a new assessment. The U.N. Secretary General called it a “code red” for humanity, and the situation is more dire than ever. The report notes that observed climate-related changes have strengthened since the previous IPCC report, and the language denoting our role in warming is explicit.
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. The scale of recent changes across the climate system...are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.”
How Do We Impact The Climate?
Though many man made factors drive climate change, the biggest problem is the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions we produce. GHGs trap heat and warm the planet, and human activity is responsible for almost all of the GHGs produced in the past 150 years. Some main GHG sources are:
- Transportation: Our global transportation sector is largely fossil fuel-powered, which, when burned, produce carbon dioxide and other harmful GHGs. Transportation activity is the number one source of GHG emissions in the United States.
- Electricity production: Dirty energy plays a big role in the climate crisis. Our world is primarily powered by GHG-intensive fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
- Agriculture: Crop cultivation and animal agriculture produce significant GHGs via deforestation, intense factory-style livestock farming, and fertilizer runoff. These processes produce at least 10 percent of U.S. emissions.
How Is Climate Change Affecting Our Planet?
For many in the climate, environment, and renewable energy space, the IPCC news isn’t a shock. But even if you’re not directly involved with the climate sphere, you’ve likely noticed climate-related trends over the past few decades. Let’s take a closer look at a few climate change “symptoms:”
- Increasingly frequent, severe storms: Warmer air holds more moisture, driving unprecedented hurricanes and other devastating storms. Many recent events have been described as “once in 500-” and “once in 1,000-year” storms and floods--yet they happen multiple times within the span of only a few years.
- Severe drought and heat: Climate change is driving very dry conditions and extreme heat. Average temperatures have steadily increased over the past century, and the 2011-2020 decade was the hottest on record. The top six warmest years on record occurred between 2015 and 2020.
- Intense wildfires: Wildfires have always been a natural feature in certain landscapes. However, climate-driven drought and extreme heat have both fueled longer fire seasons, record-breaking numbers of wildfires, and burn events of increased scale and intensity.
- Melting ice caps and sea level rise: Climate change impacts sea level both directly and indirectly. As the planet warms, the oceans absorb more heat. Warming water inherently expands, which in turn causes sea levels to rise. Increasing temperatures also drive icecap and glacier melt, which further increases ocean volume. These events are part of a vicious cycle: more ocean water equals more heat absorption, driving further ice melt, and resulting in higher seas. Intact ice caps and glaciers also reflect heat away from the Earth, so as they melt, we lose reflective surface area and experience greater warming.
Other climate-driven dangers include habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, national security threats, and increased human health issues such as heat stroke, respiratory illness, and worsening/widespread disease incidents. Communities around the globe will feel these impacts. It’s important to note, however, that our most vulnerable populations (and those who often contribute least to the problem) will experience issues sooner and with more intensity.
Is There Hope For The Future?
The IPCC doesn’t mince words: averting the worst climate outcomes requires rapid and intense change. According to the U.N. Secretary General:
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels...countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production...by 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain net-zero trajectory by mid-century.”
In other words--things are urgent, but all isn’t lost. We have the necessary technology and information to mitigate climate disaster. This means limiting cumulative carbon dioxide and methane emissions, reaching at least net zero carbon, and generally reducing/eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. So how do we do it?
- Clean, renewable energy sources are rapidly outpacing fossil fuels in economic viability. Transitioning to a clean economy is a no brainer. The International Energy Association confirms that solar is now the ‘cheapest electricity in history,’ with renewable costs falling significantly each year. A rapid transition to renewable technologies while phasing out coal, natural gas, and other dirty energy is our best bet to reach a net-zero global economy.
- A clean energy transition also implies a move to cleaner buildings. Energy-efficient construction and appliances, coupled with fixtures such as rooftop solar or small-scale wind, can significantly reduce energy burden.
- Transportation emissions hold the highest proportion of GHGs in the United States. Thus, it is imperative to deploy zero-emission transportation. Electric vehicles’ (EVs’) lifetime carbon footprints are lower than their fossil-fueled counterparts, and their numbers are growing each year. Transitioning commuter transport, public transport and government fleets, and other vehicles is essential to achieve a 1.5 degree climate pathway.
- Improving nutrient and production management can reduce impacts from the agriculture and food industry. This may include eliminating intensive farming practices, such as the concentrated animal feeding operations that yield high-methane runoff. On a consumer level, we can advocate for sustainable agriculture by eating less meat, buying local and seasonal food products, and reducing food waste.
There is no time to waste. Our futures depend on it.